November 16, 2012 § 1 Comment
This article was originally published in Foreign Policy yesterday, and I am reposting it here.
Ever since the Israel Defense Forces launched Operation Pillar of Cloud on Wednesday with the killing of Hamas military chief Ahmed al-Jabari, the official IDF Twitter feed has been working overtime to publicize Israeli military exploits.
As of this writing, the feed has published 88 tweets since Wednesday. It began with the announcement over Twitter that Israel had launched a military campaign against Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza, continued with posting video footage of Jabari’s car being blown up by an IDF missile, and then moved on to taunting Hamas fighters not to “show their faces above ground in the days ahead.”
This prompted a response from Hamas over Twitter that Israel had “Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves” and that Israeli leaders and soldiers would be targeted no matter where they were, lending new meaning to the term cyberwarfare. The IDF’s utilization of Twitter became such a big story that there were rumors, which turned out to be uncorroborated, that Twitter had suspended the IDF’s account over terms of service violations for posting the Jabari assassination video. All in all, it is clear that using Twitter to encourage its supporters and drive media coverage is a purposeful component of the Israel’s public diplomacy strategy while it is fighting Palestinian terror groups in Gaza. The strategy certainly has its supporters, as it has been described as an effective way to explain “the morality of the war it [the IDF] is fighting” and as “the most meaningful change in our consumption of war in over 20 years.”
But the IDF’s barrage of tweets indicates that it has not learned some important lessons from its last major incursion into Gaza. Operation Cast Lead, carried out in December 2008 and January 2009, was a tactical military victory that came at a costly price. The large numbers of Palestinian civilian casualties and images of destruction led to a renewed and vigorous effort to isolate Israel in the international community. The highest-profile example was the United Nations’ Goldstone Report, conducted by South African judge Richard Goldstone, which damaged Israel immeasurably. The report was such a disaster for Israel that in 2009 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it one of the three biggest threats Israel was facing, alongside a nuclear Iran and Palestinian rockets. The aftermath of Cast Lead also brought a renewed fervor to the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement, which seeks to isolate and delegitimize Israel, and generally placed a harsher spotlight on Israeli efforts to deal with Hamas. In all, Israel beat Hamas on the battlefield but lost the war of public opinion, which in some ways was the more important one. And while Israel always faces an uphill battle in winning the world’s approval for reasons that are beyond its control, there are some lessons it has not absorbed.
The IDF is doing two things through its Twitter campaign that are replicating the same public relations mistakes it made the last time around. The first is a strategy of playing to its own base. In posting a video of Jabari’s car exploding in a fireball or issuing blustery warnings to Hamas to stay hidden, the IDF is trying to galvanize its supporters and mobilize the pro-Israel community into retweeting and posting messages on Facebook that bolster Israel’s case and create the impression that Israel will be able to rout Hamas and eliminate the rocket fire coming from Gaza. This is an effective way to rally those who are already with you, but it is unlikely to win any new supporters. People inclined to criticize Israeli military action are not going to be swayed by such appeals, and the evidence suggests that Israel is not trying very hard to target this demographic. Mobilizing your own supporters is great, but ultimately widening your circle rather than deepening it is going to be needed in order to blunt some of the criticism that is bound to come once Operation Pillar of Cloud has concluded.
Second, and more saliently, the reason Israel suffered so badly in the court of public opinion following Cast Lead is because there was a perception that Israel was callous about the loss of Palestinian life that occurred during that operation. Partly this was fueled by the sheer number of casualties — a number that was deeply tragic but also unsurprising given Hamas’s strategy of purposely embedding itself in the civilian population — but partly it was fueled by things like T-shirts depicting Palestinians in crosshairs, suggesting disgustingly poor taste at best and a disregard for the terrible consequences of war at worst.
Publicizing posters of Jabari with the word “Eliminated” do not rise to the same level, but do not send the message that Israel should be sending. The IDF in this case is trumpeting the killing of an unapologetic terrorist leader, and nobody should shed a tear for Jabari for even a moment, but the fact remains that many people, particularly among the crowd that Israel needs to be courting, are deeply skeptical of Israeli intentions generally and tend not to give Israel the benefit of the doubt. They cast a wary eye on Israeli militarism and martial behavior, and crowing about killing anyone or glorifying Israeli operations in Gaza is a bad public relations strategy insofar as it feeds directly into the fear of Israel run amok with no regard for the collateral damage being caused. Rather than convey a sense that Israel is doing a job that it did not want to have to do as quickly and efficiently as possible, the IDF’s Twitter outreach conveys a sense of braggadocio that is going to lead to a host of problems afterward.
Israel is proud of its ability to hit Hamas where it most hurts, and understandably wants to make Hamas leaders think twice before escalating rocket attacks against civilian population centers. Nevertheless, the IDF Twitter feed over the past two days is going to great lengths to inadvertently ensure that Israel once again wins a tactical military victory but loses the overall battle, further contributing to its own international isolation and a fresh round of vociferous condemnations once the dust has cleared.
November 12, 2012 § 11 Comments
Israel has been dealing with a constant barrage of rockets and shelling from Gaza since last week, and despite Egyptian claims to have mediated a ceasefire yesterday, it has apparently had no effect as the rockets have continued unabated today. Bibi Netanyahu warned foreign ambassadors yesterday that Israel might have no choice but to launch a ground operation into Gaza, and the Israeli press is rife with speculation that Cast Lead redux is about to begin.
On the face of it this may seem like a risky move. A ground operation into Gaza is bound to lead to civilian casualties and international opprobrium, along with the inevitable resulting Israeli investigatory commission. Also factoring in is that this is the second day in a row that Israel has fired at Syria in response to Syrian shooting at Israeli positions in its attempt to hit rebel fighters – the same dynamic that has been occurring along the Turkish border. If Israel goes after Hamas and other terror groups in Gaza, the possibility always exists for Hizballah to seize on Israel’s preoccupation in the south and launch its own rockets in the north, and between Palestinian armed groups in Gaza and Hizballah, it is the latter that is the far graver danger and more serious threat. Looming in the background of all of this is Iran, and how a large scale operation in Gaza might danger Israel’s diplomatic efforts to keep the pressure on the regime in Tehran. And of course, with elections coming in January, Netanyahu might be loathe to undertake any big risks right now that will endanger his presumptive reelection, and any large operation into Gaza is undoubtedly a big risk.
Despite all this, unless Egypt is actually successful and the rockets stop in the next two or three days, I think we are going to see Israel go into Gaza with air strikes and ground forces. To begin with, Israel has never been hesitant to do what it must to establish deterrence against Hamas, and the IDF is probably concluding right now that any hint of deterrence it might have created following Cast Lead is gone. It is an open question as to whether such deterrence ever existed, but the rocket escalation leaves little doubt that Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other armed groups in Gaza have zero qualms right now about targeting Israel civilians with rocket fire. No government can afford to let such attacks continue, and certainly the Israel government has not historically been shy about going after Hamas when it feels it is necessary.
The security angle is prominent, but there is a political angle as well. Netanyahu has been campaigning on security issues pretty much his entire political life, and the current campaign is no different. His focus on security is so strong that Kadima, in what can only be described as a last ditch effort amongst its death throes, has adopted as its campaign slogan “Bibi is endangering us” superimposed against a backdrop of a mushroom cloud. The irony of Netanyahu’s hawkish public persona is that he has never presided over a large military operation during either of his two tenures as prime minister, but as risky as it may be to send ground forces into Gaza right now, he cannot afford to just sit on his hands. A man running for prime minister whose primary rationale for reelection is that only he is prepared to do what is necessary to keep Israel safe cannot sit idly by as rockets rain down on southern Israeli towns and have any hope of winning the election. From an electoral standpoint, I don’t think Netanyahu has any choice but to respond with force and hope that the IDF is prepared for what it will encounter in the streets and warrens of Gaza City. If Netanyahu cannot deal with the threat emanating from his own backyard, he cannot credibly claim to be able to deal with the threat coming from Iran.
Compounding this situation is the fact that the other Israeli political parties are egging Netanyahu and Likud on. Kadima, Yisrael Beiteinu, Yesh Atid, and Habayit Hayehudi have all called for military operations hitting Hamas or the resumption of targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders, and even Labor has made a nebulous recommendation for “military and diplomatic pressure.” The only significant party urging a ceasefire is Meretz. This means that the longer Netanyahu waits to move on Gaza, the longer he will have to face calls from political rivals urging immediate actions, and every day this goes on endangers Netanyahu’s electoral prospects. It is one thing to take your time when the other parties are calling for calm, but quite another when elections are coming up and nearly every party across the political spectrum is calling for some form of action. As an aside, this also goes to show just how dead the peace camp is in Israel, and why Ehud Olmert’s apparent plan to reenter politics and campaign on the basis of reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians is going to be a disastrous miscalculation (more on that later this week).
As I noted yesterday on twitter, I think Israeli military action has crossed the threshold of being a lot more likely than not. As historically risk-averse as he might be, Netanyahu is not going to just wait this out. Security necessity and political calculations are both moving in the same direction here, and I think that we are about to see a Cast Lead-type incursion.
P.S. If this does indeed happen, I am going to be a busy man given what it will do to Turkish-Israeli relations in light of Erdoğan’s embrace of Hamas and imminent trip to Gaza.
June 20, 2012 § Leave a comment
Hamas seems to be begging Israel to launch Operation Cast Lead, The Sequel. 45 rockets were fired by Hamas into Israel on Tuesday following the cross-border attack from Egyptian territory on Monday, confining much of southern Israel to bomb shelters. There is never an excuse for rockets directed toward civilians, and Hamas is barely even pretending to have a justification this time around. Hamas claims that the rocket barrage is a response to Israeli airstrikes, but the real reason Hamas is now returning to its strategy of indiscriminately targeting Israeli civilians is that it is beginning to feel squeezed by other groups that are questioning Hamas’s commitment to armed resistance. As pointed out in the New York Times, Islamic Jihad’s more militant approach has garnered it growing popularity and Hamas does not want to be eclipsed by its smaller competitors. More saliently though, the attack on Monday coming from the Sinai and for which a group claiming to be affiliated with al-Qaida has claimed responsibility put even more pressure on Hamas, since it cannot afford to be seen sitting on the sidelines while an outside non-Palestinian group carries the banner of resistance against Israel. Hamas is madly trying to reestablish its credentials of taking the fight to Israel, and it does so by firing rockets from Gaza because it has no other long term strategy and no interest in a productive solution. It is being tarred as too compliant and willing to live with the status quo, and so Israeli civilians have to bear the brunt of it reflexing its muscles. Let’s also not pretend that any of this is a “legitimate response to Israeli aggression” since it’s pretty clear who made the first move here, not to mention that purposely targeting civilian communities with rockets is never a legitimate response to anything.
Hamas is gambling that with Israeli tanks moving toward the Egyptian border and Iran presumably occupying the Israeli defense ministry’s attention, the IDF will have neither the time or the inclination to bother with a large scale response to rocket fire that has thankfully not killed any Israelis yet. This is a bad miscalculation on Hamas’s part. Israel’s first priority is protecting its citizens from attack, and should this rocket fire continue, I fully expect to see an IDF incursion into Gaza. Israel is not going to be frightened off by a Morsi victory in Egypt, and is also unlikely to sit back and absorb rocket fire as a favor to the Egyptian military, which does not want to be pressured by public opinion into fighting Hamas’s battles. This is not destined to end well for Hamas should it provoke a real Israeli response, and yet Hamas is bafflingly more concerned with not being outshined by smaller resistance groups.
In this vein, the most important takeaway from this episode is that it is time to lay to rest forever the idea that Hamas is moderating or will moderate. When Israel pulled out of Gaza and Hamas took control of the strip from the Palestinian Authority, I thought there was a small but legitimate chance that Hamas would begin to transition away from terrorizing Israeli civilians and start focusing on governance. Any hopes I had on this front have been thoroughly dashed. Despite the recent relative quiet, it is clear that Hamas is not changing. It remains a revanchist group dedicated not to building a state but to seeking the elimination of Israel entirely, and it continues to be a hostage to small bore thinking without seeing the larger trends at work in the region. Islamist groups throughout the Middle East, from Ennahda in Tunisia to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, are devoting their attention to governing, and while they are not necessarily forces for moderation or social progress, they recognize that the key to long term survival and relevance is basic party politics and the nitty gritty of learning how to run a state. Hamas evinces zero interest in following this path, which should permanently kill the notion that it is a legitimate Islamist political party that also happens to have a military wing. It is everlastingly obsessed with the idea of resistance above state building, purity above compromise. Is there anyone left still so naive as to think that a complete and total Israeli pullout from the West Bank would put an end to Hamas rockets, attacks on civilians, and efforts to abduct Israeli soldiers? Rather than prepare its constituents to live with the inevitability of Israel and attempt to improve their lot, Hamas is more concerned with looking tough and whether other groups are damaging its street cred. What a terrible and pathetic representative for the people of Gaza.
Look at the revolutionary trends rocking the rest of the Arab world, and then compare that to the stale stasis that grips Hamas as it remains impervious to change or adaptation and refuses to embrace any new role other than resistance in the form of barbarism. It is as it always was: an opaque organization with a super secretive process for selecting its leaders and making decisions, with the only difference that it now shoots rockets at Israeli civilians rather than blowing them up on buses or in cafes. I desperately think that Israel needs to deal with the Palestinian Authority to end the occupation of the West Bank and establish a Palestinian state, but Hamas is an altogether different breed and its actions yesterday were the latest abundantly clear demonstration of this. The attack from the Sinai and the rockets from Gaza are an important reminder that Israel lives in a nasty neighborhood and that there are some things which it will never be able to inoculate itself against no matter how it resolves the Palestinian issue. Nobody argues that Israel is threatening or occupying any part of Egypt and yet it still faces attacks coming from the Sinai, which pose a terrible dilemma for Jerusalem since it does not want to enter into any hostilities with the Egyptians but cannot afford to just let these provocations continue. This is where the double standard that governs all things Israeli kicks in, since every country in the world has the absolute right to respond to cross-border attacks (and this applies both to Egypt and Gaza) but by doing so Israel walks into an inevitable public relations trap. If Israel goes back into Gaza, every Palestinian civilian life that is lost will be an unqualified tragedy, but it will be entirely on Hamas’s head.